As a fan of FX's Reservation Dogs I'm always on my toes. What posits as a semi-lite dramedy, it always finds its way to hit heavy topics in meaningful ways that hit the heart without ever losing a wink of optimism that never let's you down.

While there are a myriad of aspects that we can attribute to this elegant tone, a very underrated element is the world we're brought into by design. Reservation Dogs in particular has a very elegant tone set by the production design, and it's very much appreciated we could explore that deeper with production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly.

Without further ado, please enjoy a deep dive into the art of production design from Brandon—how to aspire to work there, and how to thoughtfully perfect the art.

Editor's note: the following quotes are edited for length and clarity.

Want to Set Design? Here's How

'I always grew up loving movies. I’m an only child and I spent a lot of time as a kid watching movies either at home or at the theater. But I never knew how to get into the film industry, no one in my family or that I knew did anything close to that. It seemed like a very distant world.

Actually, once, when I was growing up, Wes Craven came to shoot for a week in my hometown. It was incredibly exciting, just seeing this traveling circus of trailers and trucks and people descend on a very mundane neighborhood and knowing they were making this block of boring, rusted aluminum-sided houses that I walked by every day into something that would be in a film.

I ended up going to school to study film theory and film criticism. And it was really fun because you would have four-hour classes where you watched movies, talked about them for two hours, and then wrote about them. I thought I would end up making esoteric, documentary-style shorts—or essay films like Chris Marker, something like that. Things that nobody cared about and that would never make any money.

Once I got out of school, I was living with a couple of friends in Brooklyn. Everybody was trying to get into the film industry in one way or another. And a friend couldn't make this music video shoot tomorrow and asked if I would cover for him.

I was a little leery because I didn’t like the band, but I took it, and right away, I met the art director, who explained to me what an art director was, and immediately I was hooked. I realized it combined so many of my different interests—research, which is something that I've always loved, and being able to learn about any particular subject in depth. And then being able to tell the emotions of the story through the visuals. And also being able to put together a team and motivate everyone to work in one direction toward one vision.

That Art Director was nice enough to take me under their wing and bring me on to the next no-budget music video and the next no-budget commercial. And we ended up doing a few of those together. And then, they were going to design a small feature and asked if I wanted to prop master it. And I said, yes, definitely, but can you please explain what a prop master is?

So I started prop-mastering very small indie films in New York, where I was the only art person on set. So I was really prop mastering, assistant prop mastering, on-set dressing, etc, all at once. And I loved it. I loved being on set, and I loved being able to tell the story through the character details—the watch a character wears, the wallet they carry, all the small character points that there aren’t room for in the dialogue. I learned how to work with directors, how to work with actors, and how a set functions. I learned a lot.

But then I just thought I would love to start working with the character spaces a bit more, and I started decorating, which I also enjoyed. And then, I wanted to be able to build the entire world and help tell the story through it. So I learned some additional design skills and was in a position where I could Prop Master or decorate a union movie and then go and design a very small-budget indie movie and kind of alternate like that. One for them, one for me. Until the design projects started getting bigger and I was designing union movies and didn’t need to do the other work anymore.

So that's how I got into Production Design."

Reservation Dogs

"Sterlin [Harjo], the showrunner, and I talked about the movie Friday and how it portrays a very specific place with a sense of lightheartedness. It’s grounded and feels real, but it’s not gritty in the way you might expect. We talked about wanting Reservation Dogs to feel grounded, layered, and nuanced but also cinematic. And I think that's what I'm usually shooting for—a sense of elevated, aesthetically considered realism.

So we got along very well. He’s an independent filmmaker and we both love movies and were talking about Emir Kusturica and other references I wouldn’t necessarily have thought we would be going for.

The pilot, which they’d already shot at that point, and the scripts for the full season were groundbreaking. It was a story that I hadn't seen before—one that there hasn't been an opportunity to tell in an authentic way.

So I knew I had to be a part of it."

The Art of Elevated, Aesthetically Considered Realism

Reservation Dogs


"It's when things feel grounded, and the viewer can identify familiar aspects of a relatable reality, but the overall design is slightly heightened. It has a realness but also an aesthetic and a style to it. It’s like achieving the best look, maybe even the platonic ideal of a messy bedroom. Nothing is particularly calling attention to itself, and it seems relatable to the viewer, but at the same time, it all comes together in the colors and the placement of dressing and everything else to create the overall effect you want the viewer to feel. It's great when you can achieve something that feels real, nuanced and grounded but also aesthetically pleasing and cinematic.

And a lot of times, the thing that I'm really trying to achieve with the design is to create a sense of empathy. You’re giving people the opportunity to experience life in a different place or a different time than their own. The character details of the life you put into a set, if they feel real and authentic to the world, create intimacy, and intimacy builds empathy. Conveying experience like that helps someone understand and feel another human being’s world."

Day-to-Day Designing Sets 

Reservation Dogs


"My general process is I get the script, break it down, and make both a running set list and a list of different characters and their qualities. What do I want to convey about those characters, and what seems to be important about them from the script?

And then I'll start hunting for references. The references are the foundation of everything else we’re going to do, so they have to be great. I will admit I’m a little bit obsessive about searching for exactly the perfect image that conveys the design idea I have in my mind.

I’ll make a lookbook out of them and run through them with the director to see what we like, what we don’t like, and why. We’re figuring out the direction we’re heading in using the references as markers along the road.

Then once everyone starts working in the office together, I like to put all the references up on the wall so that everybody can walk by and see them, and everybody knows what world we’re all building together.

Then on a day to day I'm finding the locations for the shoot and bringing the director and DP there to select them together. I love scouting because even if a place isn’t the right location, it starts a conversation through which you come up with new ideas and refine what it is you’re actually looking for.

When you're doing a stage set, obviously, you’re starting with an empty studio or warehouse, etc. I might sketch out a rough layout or have some concept art made or some illustrations depending on the project. And then we’ll involve the Set Designers and I’ll give them a reference packet, talk about what we’re trying to accomplish broadly, and let them run free and come up with some ideas that fit into the overall design scheme. And then just keep refining and moving forward until we’re happy with it.

A less long-winded answer about the day-to-day for a TV show is you start the day opening the sets they’ll be shooting that day, then you go off and find locations for the next episode while you’re supervising the set dressing and other preparations happening for the sets they’ll shoot tomorrow and the next day, etc. It’s the art of being in the past, the present, and the future all in the same day. And, of course, problem-solving on a daily basis."

Empathy in Designing Communities 

Reservation Dogs


"I read this Lily Gladstone quote from a little while ago: “The work is better when you let the world inform the work.”

I'm a huge believer in that. For Reservation Dogs, it was really important to me to involve as much of the community as possible in our department—both through people actually working in the art department and also through outside artists we were collaborating with.

We had amazing artists that I feel incredibly fortunate to have collaborated with including Johnny Diacon, Dana Tiger, Yatika Starfields, and Molly Murphy Adams.

I think one of the unique things we've done on Reservation Dogs is that when we're creating and decorating the sets, you know, we're thinking about the people who will be watching at home, but also—if not more so—thinking about the people who will be in the room with us when we’re shooting.

We're thinking about the crew from the community, or cast from the community, or the people down the block who will stop by to watch filming. We want them to feel the spaces are right and to be positively affected by the choices we're making. It's about that experience as much as what the actual camera sees.

A good example of that is Mabel’s House and specifically Mabel’s Bedroom from season 2. We knew there would be a scene in which Elora Danan’s grandmother, who raised Elora for much of her life following the death of her mother, would pass away in her bed surrounded by community members sending her on with song, prayer, and ceremony.

We knew many of the actors in the room with Mabel would be elders from the community, who had gone through similar experiences in their own lives. And to match that sense of authenticity and intimacy, a creative priority became dressing Mabel’s Room with objects that would resonate with everyone in the space.

We asked people on the crew if they had something belonging to a departed loved one that they wanted to contribute to the scene. A member of the Prop Dept gave us artwork created by her mother, a known Cherokee artist who had recently passed away. The BG Casting Director gave us photos of her grandparents. Tafv, the Set Decorator’s aunts, provided their late mother’s “hunk wall,” a faded collage of myriad Bon Jovi and Marlon Brando clippings kept in her laundry room for over thirty years. It became a way to honor a loved one who hadn’t had the gift of passing in the comfort of home surrounded by family and tradition.

And I think all of that showed in the warmth and intimacy of the final product."